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Locked Away: Students Say Seclusion Doesn't Help

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Monday, August 6, 2012 at 7:01 AM

Brendon Spencer says his old public school, Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, used a spare office as an impromptu seclusion room. He says being ignored by teachers and taken out of class to "cool down" only made him more upset.

Ohio students are regularly taken out of class and put into separate rooms, known as seclusion rooms.

Educators and special needs advocates alike agree that these rooms should only be used when a child is in danger of hurting themselves or others around them, but an investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch found that schools often use these rooms as a form of discipline.


[audio href="" title="Locked Away: Students Say Seclusion Doesn't Help"]An investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch found that many schools use their inappropriately  as punishment rather than for safety reasons.[/audio]

Eighth grader Brendon Spencer says he was secluded at Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, a small town about an hour southeast of Cleveland, several times a year.

He has ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety and mood disorders. His classmates would bully him, and that would send him in a rage, kicking and hitting things around him.

First he’d be told to stand in the hallway, but if he didn’t calm down, he’d be sent into an old office where he says his teachers would shut the lights off and not talk to him.

“It just made me feel like I was alone in darkness forever,” Brendon says.

Brooke Pellets, the pupil services director at Crestwood Elementary says they had no way of knowing secluding Brendon upset him. Plus, she says, since they just used an old office, they don't consider it a seclusion room.

By definition, special education experts define any place where a student is left alone, without any other classmates, and not allowed to leave, as a seclusion room.

But the school denies having a seclusion room.

“I guess if it was just a room that was used strictly for seclusion for students then there would have to be some kind of monitoring going on there,” says Brooke Pellets, director of pupil services at Crestwood Elementary. “But if it’s just a place that we use for students to calm down or for students to have a place to sit while they’re waiting to see the principal, then that’s different.”

The situation points to how much confusion there has been about seclusion rooms and their use in Ohio. No one collects statewide data on the use of these rooms.

But the investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch found that nearly 40 percent of the 100 districts surveyed have rooms used to isolate children, and there’s no guarantee those children are safe.

Seclusion By Any Name

The "time-out room" at Logan-Hocking Local School District's Union Furnace Elementary School.

No two seclusion rooms are the same. Some are old offices, or closets, others are specially designed rooms with padded walls and foot locks. Some are called “therapy rooms,” “time-out rooms,” or “scream rooms.”

No matter what they look like or what they’re called, they’re used for the same thing: to lock away students, mostly those with special needs.

Some teachers insist they need these rooms to deal with difficult students.

“It’s my last resort,” says Roger Nott, the intervention specialist at Logan-Hocking Local School in central Ohio. He says he uses his room a couple times a week for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

“I don’t want to go in there, because in society, there is no time-out room,” Nott says. “So you want them to be able to accept defeat sometimes and compromise and stuff. But I think it’s necessary in order to keep them safe, and keep everybody else going, and sometimes you just need a break.”

Advocates for special needs students aren’t buying that argument. They say shouldn’t need to use seclusion rooms, and instead should focus on teaching special-needs children self control.

“It’s not effective, it’s not research-based, it’s not peer-reviewed,” says Sue Tobin, a lawyer with the Ohio Legal Rights Service. “It’s hurting kids and it’s hurting people.”


Among Tobin’s clients are parents who sued Columbus City Schools this past spring for allegedly locking their autistic son in a seclusion room and leaving him to lay in his own urine for hours.

“When parents send kids to school they expect them to be safe,” Tobin says. “And it should be shocking that kids aren’t safe.”

Ohio has no laws or rules or even guidelines about the use of seclusion rooms, something Tobin says needs to change “sooner rather than later.” Many other parts of school life are governed by all sorts of rules, like what kids can wear to school, what they are served for lunch, and even how they use social media.

Using Seclusion Rooms as Punishment

Some advocates, such as ARC of Ohio director Gary Tonks, say these rooms are often used as a disciplinary tool, instead of as a way to remove kids when they become dangerous.

[related_content align="right"]“Supposedly you’re taking them away from reinforcement, but we’ve seen that it’s not being used in that manner, it’s more punishment,” Tonks says. “You do bad? You go in that locked room over there.”

Take, for example, Youngstown City Schools, where pubic records show that in one school, students were secluded 42 times in one month. Only four of those incidences were the result of violent behavior.

The Ohio Department of Education is working on a policy for public schools to follow when it comes to seclusion and physical restraint of students. policy won’t ban either practice, but characterizes their use as “a last resort measure to ensure the safety and health and well being of parties involved,” says Sasheen Phillips, who heads the department’s special education efforts,

That policy won’t be finalized until March of next year. Many advocates worry it will leave too much up to individual teachers and school officials.

OLRS’s Sue Tobin says she knows there are folks in the Department of Education familiar with positive intervention techniques and the needs of kids with disabilities. But, she says, “I don’t know how involved in the conversation they are.”

StateImpact Ohio reporter Molly Bloom and The Columbus Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this report.


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